Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1977) has been a legendary film almost from the moment it was released. It is, of course, a great film, but its legend owes even more to the fact that the film has been seen (until now) by so few people. For me and many critics, “Killer of Sheep” existed only as a film written about; Jonathan Rosenbaum’s praise for the film stands out in my memory, but the film has been oft-discussed in print over the past thirty years, yet remained unavailable either as a theatrical release or even on VHS. Milestone has corrected this oversight in grand fashion by producing the finest DVD release of 2007.
Burnett’s film resists easy categorization. It can be described as social realism, but it can just as easily be labeled a tone poem. Or even a musical, of a sort. The film doesn’t follow a single narrative thread, but rather shows life in a black neighborhood in Watts in the mid-70s. When I say that it shows life, I really mean that. The film focuses on the rituals of daily living: the chores that occupy the day, the waiting that occupies the night. Burnett grants the most routine events central dramatic weight. The film’s set piece, if it has one, shows two men buying a used (and possibly stolen) car motor and attempting to secure on the back of a beat-up pick up truck. It’s not the sort of gaudy scene that wins screenwriting contests, but it is one the most remarkable film sequences I have seen this year. I won’t even attempt to describe it in more detail, save to say it is simultaneously sad and funny without being the least bit sentimental.
That’s another distinguishing feature of “Killer of Sheep.” Films and television shows dealing with African-American “issues” (what a term!) were plentiful in the 1970s, ranging from the social earnestness of Norman Lear-style television to the blaxploitation of “Super Fly.” “Killer of Sheep” doesn’t fit into either category, nor it does fall somewhere in-between. Burnett does not address “issues,” nor does he attempt to show any of his characters in a good or bad light. He presents his characters and their actions without inflection or embellishment; in other words, as real people, not filmic constructs.
The main character is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who, like almost everyone else he knows, struggles to make ends meet. Stan does not represent anyone or anything other than himself. Some of his not-so-close friends try to rope him into assisting in a murder. They talk tough, and have grandiose plans, but nothing ever comes of it. That’s another common theme in the film. Everybody has a plan, and these plans are constantly thwarted by their limiting circumstances. Who has time to dream when you have to work a double shift on the slaughter-house floor?
Burnett shot “Killer of Sheep” on a $10,000 budget. It was his thesis film at UCLA Film School in 1975. I have seen my share of thesis films, and I don’t think I am offending any friends when I say that “Killer of Sheep” is unique in the world of thesis cinema. The film was warmly received in the few venues it played, but outside of New York and a handful of spotty museum or festival exhibitions, the film went largely unseen. In one way (and only this one way), the film may have benefited from the limited distribution. Burnett relies heavily on a rich soundtrack ranging from Etta James and Dinah Washington to Earth, Wind and Fire, and Rachmaninov. It is unlikely Burnett that would have been able to pay for the music rights for a wider release without studio backing, but the film is unthinkable today without these songs. Thirty years later, the film has now been released in theaters and on DVD with the original music rights (for a price of approximately $150,000 according to Roger Ebert).
The restoration and distribution of “Killer of Sheep” is the single most important film event of 2007, bar none.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. “Killer of Sheep” was shot on 16 mm film for less than $10,000, so even the restored transfer, which used a 35 mm blow-up as source, looks grainy and shows some wear and tear. It’s still a lovely image and a noteworthy achievement once you learn just in how bad a state the 16 mm prints were.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
As if “Killer of Sheep” wasn’t reason enough to purchase this release, the two-disc set includes several other shorts films and features by Charles Burnett.
“Killer of Sheep” is accompanied by a full-length commentary track by Charles Burnett and Richard Pena. The film shares with Disc One with three Burnett short films: “Several Friends” (1969, 22 min), “The Horse” (1973, 14 min), and “When It Rains” (1995, 13 min). I enjoyed all three shorts, but found “When It Rains” to be the best by far. Disc One also includes a short “Cast Reunion” featurette (6 min) filmed at the NuArt theater in Los Angeles on April 7, 2007.
Disc Two offer two cuts of Burnett’s feature film “My Brother’s Wedding,” the original 1983 cut and the 2007 Director’s Cut. Unlike most Director’s Cuts, the 2007 version is far shorter than the original: 1983 clocks in at 117 minutes; the Director’s Cut at just 80 minutes. I have only watched the 2007 cut, and found it quite good, though marred somewhat by the social earnestness so refreshingly absent from “Killer of Sheep.”
Disc Two also includes Burnett’s newest short film, “Quiet as Kept” (2007, 5 min) about a New Orleans family dislocated by Hurricane Katrina.
The slim insert booklet features an essay by Armond White who issues a heartfelt plea to rescue the film from being labeled a mere “masterpiece.” Film preservationist Ross Lipman also writes briefly about the restoration of the film.
Though Armond White will probably hate me for saying this, “Killer of Sheep” is a masterpiece. Don’t let the word “masterpiece” fool you into thinking that the film is somehow difficult to access or, worse yet, easy to categorize. It’s a singular film from one of America’s great directors.
Every year, Milestone releases one or two films on DVD that contribute to our knowledge of world cinema, and especially to the ability of a wider audience to appreciate great films. “Killer of Sheep” may be Milestone’s finest DVD release yet. It’s certainly the best DVD of 2007, and nothing else is all that close.